Western campaigners and lèse-majesté

Bars

One of the great disappointments of the Prime Ministership of Yingluck Shinawatra is her unwillingness, or inability, to put in place any meaningful reform of Thailand’s lèse-majesté law. Outrageous prison sentences continue to be handed out against those who have exercised their right of freedom of political expression and most of those sentenced prior to her election continue to suffer in prison. Somyot Prueksakasemsuk is the latest victim of this obscene legal abuse.

Lèse-majesté is a dark stain on Thailand’s—and Yingluck’s—reputation.

So, what is to be done? There is no easy answer. As one of the most informed commentators on lèse-majesté, David Streckfuss, recently wrote:

The real question is what to do about it. I am really stuck on this. The Campaign for the Reform of Article 112 has been quiet for half a year now. …Numerous letters have been signed and sent to the Thai government on the issue. I actually don’t know what to do or say any more about it. The EU delegation in Thailand has done its bit. Embassies have spoken out. External pressure is useful and morally necessary. But what to do now? (Comment 42.1)

One line of argument that has emerged in the flurry of debate in recent weeks is that non-Thai journalists and academics must lead the campaign, exposing the specifics of lèse-majesté brutality and challenging the royalist mythology that underpins it.

In some respects I agree. Academics and journalists have an important role to play in keeping Thailand’s lèse-majesté repression in the international spotlight. They can also make an important contribution to opening up a frank discussion about the role of the monarchy in Thai politics, a discussion that the lèse-majesté law is, in part, designed to repress. New Mandala has made a useful contribution on both these fronts, and I am proud of that.

But I also have my doubts. I am uncomfortable about the claim that non-Thai commentators have a central role to play in the lèse-majesté reform campaign. I certainly don’t buy the puerile nationalism that argues that foreigners have no right to engage in critical debate about Thai politics or its institutions. Thailand is much too connected with the world for that old line to be credible.

However, there are more substantial objections.

My first reservation is practical. There are good reasons why many academics and journalists working on Thailand feel constrained about what they can publish.  Sometimes their caution frustrates me but, on reflection, I respect it. As an established academic with a secure job I have been able to say and write things about the monarchy that I would not expect other colleagues—in different circumstances—to say or write. I would not have been willing to be so outspoken as a more junior, and less experienced, scholar. The careers of  journalists and academics who work on Thailand are dependent on ongoing access to it. The idea that they should give up that access in order to speak truth to power is noble, but it is unrealistic.

The career of ex-Reuters journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall is telling. Marshall has been a very strong voice calling for more journalistic frankness on the Thai monarchy. But,  as has become clear in the discussion generated by my previous post on this issue, he was not able to publish the sort of commentary that he now regards as obligatory while he was working as a journalist for Reuters (either in Bangkok or Singapore) . The fact that someone so passionate about the cause was unable to publish openly critical commentary while working for Reuters should prompt some realism, and respect, when  considering the work of those who continue to face a range of professional, personal and legal constraints.

My second reservation is more about strategy. An elected government like that of Yingluck Shinawatra will only move on lèse-majesté when the electoral cost-benefit ratio shifts in favour of reform. Quite simply, at present it is not an electoral winner. The calls for reform within Thailand are certainly gaining momentum, but I have little doubt that the vast majority of voters are relatively comfortable with the law in its current form. One of the unpleasant aspects of Thailand’s electoral culture is a rather nonchalant approach to human rights. Don’t forget the electoral popularity of Thaksin’s brutal war on drugs.

The king is not universally revered, but he is a potent figure in the panoplies of power that many Thais seek to tap into. Potency can be both protective and dangerous. For many, I suspect, it is no surprise that those who mess with potency end up in serious trouble.

The key to reform is to shift the electoral balance. Western commentators can bang on about false consciousness, brain washing and the power of fairy tales for as long as we want, but reform of lèse-majesté will only come when there the government feels confident to act without prompting a backlash that will cost it votes. That doesn’t mean waiting until a majority of voters come to favour reform, but it will require a significant shift in the terms of debate and a reduction in its intensity. I doubt that can be achieved during the reign of the present king. Vajiralongkorn’s much less potent reign holds out a much better prospect for reform.

It is useful to reflect on the potential role of non-Thai commentators in contributing to the momentum of reform within Thailand. At present, Western commentary on lèse-majesté speaks to the converted. I doubt it plays any meaningful role in shifting opinions among the majority who are less concerned about it.

In fact, I think Western critics of the law need to contemplate the possibility that our efforts may have the opposite effect. Royalism combines with nationalism to form a potent anti-Western mix and I think there is a risk that Western attempts to drive reform will strengthen the hand of these who defend the status quo.

Just as the “self-lampooning”  ultra-royalist Tul Sitthisomwong is a wonderful asset for the anti-lèse-majesté cause (and it was a master stroke on the part of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand to give him a stage) there is a real possibility that the ultra-royalists in Thailand applaud every time Western critics of the king air their views.

As we consider our responses to the awful challenge of the lèse-majesté law, we need to be careful that we don’t provide the Thai ultra-royalists and nationalists with exactly the image of the interfering and insensitive Westerner that they are seeking.